My friend Karen Wiederholt introduced me to a traditional learning rhyme that I had never — in 43 years — heard. It goes like this:
When two vowels go out walking, the first one does the talking.
Because of my interest in linguistics, the walking-talking rule set my brain in motion — I’m always interested in how well or poorly a rule for language holds up to scrutiny.
Common words like ‘great,’ ‘freight,’ and ‘buy’ put the lie to the ‘talking’ of the e or the u. I’m also not sure how the rule addresses the sometimes elusive nuances of the dipthong. ‘Great,’ ‘freight,’ and ‘buy’ contain dipthongs, though not as obviously so as, say, ‘pluot.’ Of ‘around,’ ‘town,’ and ‘road,’ only ‘road’ seems to obey the rule. I say ‘seems’ because phonetically ‘road’ is like the sound you get when you mash together o and u. It is precisely the same sound you get from the word ‘pose.’ ‘Road’ and ‘pose’ contain dipthongs and are excellent specimens for understanding how spelling and phonetics have less to do with each other than the rule unfortunately implies.
So, if the walking-talking rule’s verisimilitude decays on a pass involving only 7 examples, as I’ve used in the previous paragraph, what happens to the rule when you throw it at a database of 25,000 frequently-used English words?
For the answer, I turned to the Core Knowledge Foundation, where I learned that the rule is so famous and so ingrained in learning that PBS has a music video to celebrate it. (I certainly never heard anything like this on Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo, or Mister Rogers.)
The Foundation’s Matthew Davis wrote a thoughtful article on the rule.
The database tells us that the rule points the reader to the correct pronunciation for 2,634 words. (Click here to see a list.)
That seems pretty powerful—until you count up the cases in which the rule leads the reader astray. It turns out that there are 2,592 words in the database that a reader would pronounce incorrectly by following this rule. (Click here to see a list.)
Would you ever rely on anything that only works ‘50.4%’ of the time?
As fascinated as I am by the invalidity of the walking-talking rule, I’m more fascinated by the fact that neither my Mom, Dad, nor any of the teachers I had from Montessori school through Catholic elementary school ever uttered this rule. My boyfriend confirms that it’s at least as old as his long-deceased grandmother, from whom he first learned it.
As Matthew Davis and others point out, the rule, as clever and hummable as it may be, actually prohibits critical thinking about the way language works and how its volume of exceptions and violators contributes to the richness and variety of spoken language.
In the second half of the video the “non-talking” vowels (actually letters in an indivisible vowel sound) protest with “But…” It’s as if they are trying to interrupt the parade of innaccuracy by saying “But I can easily dismantle this rule if only someone would let me sing, too.”